Derailed Blazers

Until the Blazers went on a monthlong 13-game win-streak from Valentines Day 2018 until March 18th, they were sitting on the sixth seed at 31-26. Great teams don’t usually string together four losing streaks of at least three games, mostly coming against playoff teams; they did. One of those losing streaks was a five-game skid where Anthony Davis, John Wall, Steph Curry, and Draymond Green all sat when the Blazers matched up against those players specific teams. They fortified their third seeding by ripping off that admittedly impressive 13-game win-streak, even after going on a four-game losing streak before grinding out a win against the Jazz to close the season with 49 wins in an incredibly balanced Western Conference that saw three teams win 48 games, and the other two playoff teams winning 47.

I’ll begin my examination with that Valentines Day game then, which conveniently ranks as Damian Lillard’s fourth-highest Game Score of the season, and since it kicked off the teams’ 13-game win-streak, and came at home against the Warriors, I would say it was his best game of the 2017-18 season. His performance that resulted in his third-highest Game Score for the season came on the road against the Pelicans on 3/27/2018, and was arguably more impactful overall, but we’ll be getting back to that team later. For now, marvel in the wonder of head coach Terry Stotts’s mover-blocker offense that highlights the isolation skill set of Lillard and McCollum.

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Unfortunately, this set consists a majority of the offense being run by the Blazers. Zaza Pachulia has the reputation of a clumsy oaf, and yet even he was able to dissect Portland’s offense. Sure, his team lost this game, but which team ended up being swept in the First Round by the Pelicans and which team beat the Pelicans in five in the Semifinals en route to winning the Finals?

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It’s funny that the Blazers and the Pelicans met in the first round, as they sat a seed above them well up until March 1st, when the Blazers then five-game winning streak had finally earned them a higher seeding; fifth. The Pelicans stayed afloat around the seventh-to-fifth seed without DeMarcus Cousins by feasting on non-playoff teams throughout February, but closed the season out vapidly at 10-8 after their 114-101 win at the Kings on 3/7/2018; which earned them their highest seeding in the season at fourth. The Blazers were already third in the West by this point, and since the Blazers beat the Pelicans 107-103 on 3/27/2018, most people assumed Portland’s high-scoring talented backcourt would be too much for the depleted Pelicans.

Instead, Anthony Davis dominated the post, and Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo bullied the Blazer’s defensively deficient backcourt. The belief was that since the Blazers had two of the top three players in the series, they could wear down Anthony Davis by keeping the ball moving into open jumpers, and that never happened. Whenever anyone on the Blazers went into the post, they were met by a determined Anthony Davis, and since Stotts’s simple offense rests on the shoulders of his backcourt, the Blazers were unable to make anything happen on the perimeter.

Even Davis was able to slide up from the post and contest shots, effectively neutering Portland’s offense. Al-Farouq Aminu is already unable to create his own shot, as is a majority of the players on Portland’s roster, so when Lillard and McCollum are no threat to score at the rim, it’s easy for the better teams to shadow the perimeter and take away outside shooting. I once criticized DeRozan1 for being a below-average defender, so it’s only fair I mention Lillard and McCollum’s rather atrocious defense, as even the defensive pieces incorporated into the Blazers’ system are unable to hide the -1.0 DBPM of Lillard and McCollum for the 2017-18 season, the highest for both of their careers since 2014-15; arguably the best Blazers squad of the Aldridge era. If you’re not defending and you’re not producing points, then how are you going to win the game? It’s exactly why this team was swept in the first round despite having home court advantage.

Just in case anyone thought I was being hyperbolic in my previous sentence, yes, that is Nikola Mioritc taking Jusuf Nurkic off-the-dribble for a pull-up three. Nurkic is a solid piece on a contender, but not the third-best player like he is on this currently constructed Blazers squad. He’s the cornerstone of this Blazers defense, and the Pelicans were able to exploit that by putting Nurkic on an island, something the better teams did against the Blazers in the regular season, as they had a 20-22 record2 against playoff teams. Nurkic shows his value when he’s able to anchor himself in the post, as he was the only player able to get physical with Davis, but put the man out on the perimeter and watch him get blown past by the other more skilled bigs and wings.

However, Nurkic is a valuable asset to this squad still, as his underrated passing helps facilitate Stotts’s mover-blocker offense, noted by one of the slideshows above where he delivers a beautiful bounce pass from the top of the arc to Lillard on a cut to the basket around two picks set by the “blockers” in the assigned play. However, Nurkic was a close third in usage rate behind Lillard and McCollum with 26.4; compared to Lillard’s 30.6 and McCollum’s 26.5. Frankly, that is way too high for Nurkic, as his large amount of turnovers resulted in a career-high 2.3 last season, compared to only 1.8 assists. Just to put that into perspective, amongst qualifying centers, that places him at eighth in turnovers while only tied for 12th in assists, with Marvin Gortat. His turnover percentage was the lowest it’s ever been, but his assist percentage was his lowest since his rookie season, so to put it bluntly, there’s nothing to justify Nurkic facilitating the ball nearly as much as he does.

The linked article in reference to the Blazers record against playoff teams above also discusses how the Blazers were dead last in assists per game amongst all 30 NBA franchises, and that seems to be a shock to the writer for some reason. When Nurkic is using the ball more than their actual third ball-handler, Shabazz Napier, and is only producing 1.8 assists, good for fifth on the team, then you’re going to struggle as a unit when it comes to producing assists.This same writer is also shocked that this same volume scoring backcourt were unable to get their teammates more involved in the offense, something that isn’t really a part of their arsenal. Stotts’s system doesn’t place emphasis on producing assists, as the blockers are supposed to simply keep the ball moving. You think that would be conducive to getting assists, but not when the isolation skill set of his high-scoring backcourt is the primary emphasis of the offense, as nearly everyone else is asked to do very little overall; three-and-D with more screening than normal essentially.

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It’s exactly why Nurkic is so valuable to this team. McCollum attacks the Warriors defense, curls under the basket, and takes a fadeaway shot from mid-range; nothing unusual from this Blazers squad. Nurkic shows his value though, especially against a more thin team upfront like the Warriors of the past two seasons. He grabs two offensive rebounds, bullying Green and battling Pachulia before ultimately getting the lay-in. Nurkic is tough, proving it above as well by being the only defender capable of making an elite-level player like Davis actually have to work while in the post, and he also cleans up a decent amount of messes left behind by the Blazers backcourt. Don’t get me wrong, I like seeing Lillard freeze his defender with his dazzling ball-handling skills before deciding how he’d like to score as much as anybody, but he is also using far too many possessions to justify his career 43.2% field goal percentage.

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Once again, his team won this game, and his ability to get hot and completely take over a game, as well as the type of skill set he possesses, allows Lillard to have great moments while hitting the toughest shots. His game-winning shot to eliminate the Rockets in the 2014 playoffs was an impressive moment, as well as a clutch shot, and yet, is still the defining moment of his career. That shot, as great as it is, came in the First Round of the playoffs, and Lillard has only gotten to the Semifinals once more since then, defeating a Clippers squad in the 2016 postseason; the same Clippers squad who peaked in the 2014-15 season and still managed to blow a 3-1 lead to the Rockets, who had made additions and improvements after losing to the Blazers in six.

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Meanwhile, Lillard’s usage rate has only increased since the departure of Aldridge and his subsequent rise as the leader of the franchise. His franchise has hampered his team’s development with bad contracts just as his head coach has hampered the team’s growth and development by placing so much responsibility in his backcourt to make something happen. Lillard has never been in the top 10 when it comes to assist percentage, and he’s only been in the top 10 in assists per game twice; never cracking over seven assists and only placing as high as eighth on that list. McCollum has even less accolades to pull from, so with $65,737,455 worth of their $132,626,325 2018-19 team payroll devoted to those three players, how will this team improve?

They can’t sign anyone, because an additional $39,301,437 is invested into three below-average players off the bench in Evan Turner, Maurice Harkless, and Meyers Leonard. Considering this team already has less depth than an inflatable kiddie pool, it was a wise decision to snag another floor-spacing guard in Seth Curry this offseason for the Mid-Level Exception. Aminu is on the final year of a contract that sees him getting paid only $6,957,105, and after three seasons of fulfilling his role as the top three-and-D guy while adding a consistent three-point shot to space the floor for the backcourt, he may ask for significantly more money. His shot attempts have increased in Portland, but his field goal percentage has dipped into the 30 percent range, indicating a majority of them are coming in the form of spot-up three’s. You can find better elsewhere.

A trade package then perhaps that would throw in Turner’s ridiculous contract that will see him getting paid $17,868,852 this season and $18,606,557 the next? 2019-20 is the last year of Turner’s contract, and I don’t know why Portland would want to hang onto these guys when they have one or two seasons left on their contracts and they haven’t even really provided the team with all that much, especially since this team owns all their own draft picks for the next several seasons.

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I know it’s entertaining to watch Lillard and McCollum take turns running around picks, going off-the-dribble, making quick passes before receiving the ball back in open space, and pulling up for awesome jumpers, but we’ve already seen how limiting that is to their overall output as a team. What happens when a team doubles Lillard? In the case of the Warriors game it worked out well for them, but he was obviously unable to make those same dump off passes to Nurkic against the Pelicans.

I’m already on record3 as stating I don’t believe the Blazers will be the same team they were this previous season. That team that was sputtering4 throughout the first four months of the season is who I believe this team really is at their core, and in an even tougher Western Conference this year, I don’t believe they’ll make the playoffs. Despite McCollum’s belief that “anything is possible”5, this team is not contending for a championship and they know it. I doubt anyone will trade with the Blazers unless Lillard or McCollum are in trade discussions, and since this team hasn’t won a playoff game since May 7th, 2016, despite making the playoffs the previous two seasons, perhaps it’s time to think about shipping one of them off?

Rumors have circulated on the internet about a potential Lillard trade to the Lakers, and if you’re the Blazers GM; Neil Olshey, perhaps you see that deal through? Lillard’s offensive skill set is elite enough to warrant valuable assets in return, as his 9.9 offensive win shares last season were good enough to place him at fourth in the NBA, heavily contributing to his 12.6 overall win shares, good enough for fifth in the NBA. McCollum is a dynamic scorer, but not the second-best player on a contender, and clearly Lillard cannot be the alpha on one either. Lillard’s impact is top-tier, but for him to win a championship, he has to take a backseat to a more complete player. The best deals only come attached with the best players, so if you want to throw a season away for two first round picks and a more well-rounded team next season potentially, do you pursue that opportunity?

Editor’s Notes

1. Havarti – 7/20/2018 – Do the Raptors Finally Have a Claw?

2. Fansided.com/RipCityProject – 7/29/2018 – Blazers analysis: 5 things Portland should do to improve next season

3. No Smoke Podcast – 7/10/2018 – DON’T PUT IT IN MY ASS!!! – 61:20

4. The Oregonian/OregonLive YouTube – 10/31/2017 – What’s ailing the Portland Trail Blazers offense?

5. Pull Up Podcast – 7/18/2018 – Kevin Durant, Part One: Adjusting to Life as a Warrior, Dealing With Social Media, and Thoughts on the Addition of Boogie Cousins – 45:20

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